RYAN ... "FAST, FEISTY, AND SUPER SMART"
By Tracy Callis
Tommy Ryan was a sharp two-handed hitter who was scrappy and clever. He was quick on his feet, game to the core, and always willing to take on a worthy opponent. A fighter with greater boxing "savvy" never entered the ring.
Fleischer (The Ring, Apr 1947 p 20) wrote, “Ryan, whose natural fighting weight was 140 pounds, was an ideal boxer. He possessed all the good qualities of a successful pugilist. He had speed, cleverness, a knockout punch, and was a keen ring general.”
Tommy began fighting in 1887 and engaged in more than 100 bouts during his career that lasted until 1907. He scored 17 knockouts in his first 18 bouts and did not lose a contest until 1896. In all, he lost only three times and was one of the outstanding Welterweight and Middleweight Champions of all time.
Odd (1989 p 114) described Ryan, “A sterling fighter, he knew every artifice of the game and carried a knockdown punch.” Walsh (1993 p 24) recorded, “Ryan was a master boxer, an expert in every facet of the game who later became an expert trainer” and added, “he let his fists do the talking and compiled an enviable record.”
McCallum (1975 p 125) said, “Rated the smartest boxer of his day, Ryan only entered the ring on his own terms, but once inside, he was a terror.” Fleischer (1974 p 63) described Tommy, "He was a wily scrapper and a great hitter and as welterweight champion he stood pre-eminent in a day of great fighters." Phelon (1910) wrote that Ryan was “supple as a panther” and added that he was “graceful as a fawn, cruel as a tiger.”
Among those he defeated during his career were Billy Stift (5 times), Jack Beauscholte (4 times), “Mysterious” Billy Smith (3), Tommy West (2), George Green (2), Kid Carter (2), Con Doyle (2), Johnny Gorman (2), and Patsy Raedy (2). Other good men he beat were "Nonpareil" Jack Dempsey, Frank Craig, Tom Tracy, John Wille, Jack Bonner, Danny Needham, Billy McCarthy, Dick Moore, Jack Moffatt, Paddy Purtell, Dutch Neal, Billy Payne, Martin Judge, Joe Dunfee, Billy Maber, Dick O'Brien, Billy McMillan, Frank Howson, Jack Wilkes, Billy Layton, Cyclone Kelly, and Paddy Gorman.
As to a weakness, Haldane (1967 p 144) suggested that Ryan's stamina may have been below par but that is highly doubtful in light of his 16 fights that lasted 17 rounds or more including those against Danny Needham (76 rounds), Dick England (33 rounds), Martin Shaughnessy (23 and 46), Jimmy Murphy (57), and Con Doyle (28). He won all of these except for two "No Contest" bouts and even then, Ryan was the better man.
Tommy won the Welterweight title in 1894 and held it until he claimed the Middleweight crown. Some sources report that Ryan was Middleweight Champion from 1898 until 1907, nearly ten years. Other sources contend that his title years were from 1898 to 1904. Still, others argue for 1898 to 1902.
Detloff (The Ring, 2001 p 138) wrote, "There are more versions of how long Ryan's title reign lasted that [than] there are fighters who have sued Don King." One thing for sure, as Detloff confirmed, "he won the middleweight crown ... and never lost it in the ring, never relinquished it, and retired, as the champion."
According to McCallum (1975 p 126), "When Fitz beat Corbett for the heavyweight championship, Ryan simply claimed the middleweight crown and defied anyone to try and take it away from him. He wore it with dignity until he retired from the ring in 1907 to run a gymnasium in Syracuse."
"Ryan cleaned out the division left behind when Fitzsimmons went chasing after Jim Corbett. No contender was spared. Not Frank Craig or Tommy West, not Johnny Gorman or Kid Carter, not Billy Stift or Cyclone Kelly" reported Detloff (see The Ring, 2001 p 138).
Johnston (1936 p 269) said, “He was always ready to give battle to any man who seemed to have a reasonable chance at the title.” Frank Craig, Tommy West, “Mysterious” Billy Smith, and Kid McCoy were among the best men around at the time.
Walsh (1993 p 25) wrote about Craig, “a cutey who entertained outside the ring as an ‘eccentric dancer’, but Ryan wore him down with a body attack.” “[Frank] Craig was an excellent fighter and as full of guile and tricks as any man who ever climbed through the ropes. But he met his master in Ryan” (see Johnston 1936 p 269).
Stocky Tommy West was strong, full of spunk, and quite capable. He did whatever he had to do to win a fight. Walsh (1993 p 26) reported that Jack Curley, famed boxing and wrestling promoter, once gave the following description of the Ryan-West battle for the Middleweight Championship in 1901.
"In the fourth round West butted Ryan in the mouth, splitting his tooth, and Ryan, turning to Tim Hurst, referee, mumbled, 'What do you call that, Tim?'
Tim looked at him blandly, 'You've got a head too, haven't you, Tommy?' he asked.
Ryan took the tip and in the fifth round butted West in the mouth, splitting his lips and dotting the canvas with his broken teeth. After that he ripped West's lacerated mouth with his left wrist and forearm whenever they went to close quarters and at times the floor of the ring was so wet with blood that between rounds employees of the club mopped it with towels to provide a dry footing for the fighters."
There was more than one way brainy Tommy could use his head.
Against “Mysterious” Billy Smith, Ryan was forced to call upon all of his wonderful skills. Smith was one of the roughest and toughest fighters to ever enter the ring. He came to fight and he used every possible tactic to win. Grabbing, holding, pushing, pulling, shoving, biting, butting, kneeing, hitting low, hitting after the bell, rabbit punching, and stepping on his opponent’s feet were all part of Smith’s arsenal. Schutte (1996) called Billy, “The Dirtiest Fighter of All Time.” On top of that, he was a very good boxer and puncher.
Ryan and Smith met six times in official bouts and once in an exhibition. Ryan won three bouts, two were draws, and one was a “No Contest.” Their bout of May 27, 1895 at Coney Island, New York was a “sizzler.” It got so rough that the police stopped it. The referee called it a draw but Ryan was actually a little better. (Most record books today list it as a “No Contest” bout).
In his early days as a boxer, Kid McCoy was a sparring partner of Tommy. Haldane (1967 p 153) recorded, “Ryan took a fancy to him and thought he had possibilities.” Tommy taught him a lot about boxing and when this knowledge was combined with McCoy’s natural skills of clever boxing, sharp hitting, and crafty defense, the “Kid” went on to become an all-time great.
On one occasion, the champion became a little too rough with his young opponent, battered him around the ring, and embarrassed him. The Kid never forgot the humiliation and vowed quietly to someday avenge himself.
McCallum (1975 p 126) wrote, "When the Kid was a green youngster sparring in Ryan's camp, Tommy took sadistic delight in pounding him to pieces. McCoy swore revenge and bided his time until he could sucker his instructor." Walsh (1993 p 21) remarked, “McCoy had once served as Ryan’s sparring partner and had not forgotten the beatings he took.”
As the story goes, McCoy approached Ryan in 1896 and asked for a bout, claiming he was out of shape and in need of money. Ryan had always liked McCoy and agreed to a bout. He did not take the fight seriously and did little preparation for the contest aside from running to strengthen his wind. In the meantime, McCoy prepared himself rigorously for the meeting. The rest is history.
Roberts and Skutt (1999 p 157) contend that “Ryan trained lightly for this bout and lost by knockout in the fifteenth round. Supposedly, McCoy tricked Ryan by telling him he was not in shape.”
McCoy was polished and ready when fight time rolled around. He packed a punch in each hand. Tommy relied upon his wonderful boxing skills to keep up with his tricky foe but as he tired, the fight turned in McCoy’s favor and in the fifteenth round, the Kid got his revenge and stopped Tommy.
Charles Mathison, New York state fight judge, was at ringside. According to him, “It was by no means an easy victory, for Ryan was dangerous every foot of the way, and it was due entirely to lack of training on the part of the loser that enabled McCoy to wear down Ryan and knock him out” (see The Ring, Sep 1925 p 24)
Roberts and Skutt (1999 p 156) wrote that Ryan “schooled several of his contemporaries, including champions James J. Jeffries and Gentleman Jim Corbett, in some of the finer points of boxing.” Andre and Fleischer (1991 p 82) asserted that Ryan helped develop Jeffries “into one of the greatest pugilists of modern times.”
According to Johnston (1936 pp 137 272), “Working with Tommy Ryan, the consummate boxer, Jeffries perfected the crouch until it was a nearly perfect defense.” He added, “Ryan had always been a good boxing teacher. He had the rare knack of imparting his own skills to others.”
Fleischer (1940 p 256) asserted that Ryan was among the “cream” of his specialty (boxing). Jeffries (Sep 28 1927) called Ryan “a wonder of fighting wonders” and said he could copy the style of almost any man, even though he had seen that fellow but once. Stillman (1920 p 35) described Ryan, “One of the ablest welterweights – a man with a wonderful left-hand straight, and hard and clever right.”
Haldane (1967 p 127) reported, “Ryan was an excellent boxer.” Bromberg (1962 p 37) called Tommy “a superb ring general.” McCallum (1974 p 49) referred to him as “the great old-time middleweight champion, and one of the cagiest of them all.” Lardner (1972 p 126) recorded that Jim Jeffries considered Ryan to be “the world’s greatest ring general and a better boxer than Corbett.”
Tommy, with his fast hands and fast feet, could put on quite a show prancing around and punching the bag. In bag-punching contests against other boxers, he usually won. The Cincinnati Enquirer (Jan 29 1895) reported, “the speed with which Ryan hits the inflated ball gives it the appearance of a continuous noisy white streak dancing in front of him.”
During the latter years of his career, Tommy engaged in fewer fights and worked with other fighters often. After retiring from boxing, he ran several gyms and was involved in business endeavors in California.
Jim Jeffries (Sep 21 1927) said, “I don’t recall that it [the ring] ever produced any man, who at the same time had the speed of Ryan, the cleverness of Ryan, the hitting power of Ryan, his amazing stamina, his superb courage, and his uncanny brain.”
Tom McArdle, Madison Square Garden Matchmaker (The Ring, Oct 1928 p 21), called Ryan the #2 All-Time hardest hitter among the welterweights behind only Joe Walcott and the #3 All-Time hardest hitter among the middleweights behind only Bob Fitzsimmons and Stanley Ketchel. Jack Kofoed, boxing writer, called Tommy the #2 All-Time best finisher among the middleweights (The Ring, Aug 1927 p 17).
Spider Kelly, fistic expert and trainer extraordinary, described Ryan, “Tommy Ryan was the greatest welterweight I ever saw. A great number of fight writers pick Walcott, but I disagree with them. Mysterious Billy Smith and Tommy West used to take Walcott but Ryan would take them, and then repeat any time they wanted more” (The Ring, Oct 1924 p 14).
Biddy Bishop called Ryan the #1 All-Time Welterweight and said, “Ryan was all class, a great ring general. One of his strongest winning points was proper conditioning” (The Ring, Mar 1927 p 29).
Van Court (1926 p 108) called Ryan the #1 All-Time Welterweight. Said Van Court, "In the welterweight class, there are three who rank so closely, there is little choice, namely Joe Wolcott [Walcott], Tommy Ryan, and Mysterious Billy Smith. But as Ryan had about the cleanest record, he should be classified first."
Jimmy Johnston, President of the National Sports Alliance, said “Getting down to the middleweights, it does not take long to make a choice. Tommy Ryan was the master of them all. Judged by hitting ability and science, he surpassed any middleweight of the past or present. He was the outstanding figure in his class during a time when there were plenty of real fighters, when fighters fought more for the love of glory than for money” (see The Ring, May 1926 p 12)
Jack Curley asserted, “Tommy was the goods. If I were asked to choose the greatest fighter of all time, regardless of weight, I would unhesitatingly name Ryan” (The Ring, Jun 1926 p 13).
At another time, Curley said Ryan was the All-Time greatest welterweight and middleweight (except for Bob Fitzsimmons, whom Jack called a heavyweight). Curley wrote (The Ring, Apr 1932 p 41), “Tommy so easily was the greatest of all welterweights that it would be a joke to nominate any other for the post and when he grew into a middleweight, was quite as easily the best …”
Detloff (The Ring, 2001 p 138) asserted that Tommy "was a middleweight years ahead of his time and probably the second best of his era, right behind Bob Fitzsimmons" and emphasized, "Records like Ryan's don't happen by accident."
Nat Fleischer (1974 p 63) reported, "It has been said for Tommy Ryan, by men who should know, that he was the greatest fighter for his weight boxing has known." Fleischer, himself, rated Tommy as the #2 All-Time Middleweight.
In a poll of old-timers, Ryan was rated the #6 All-Time Middleweight (see McCallum 1975 p 323). In the opinion of this writer, Ryan was the #4 All-Time Welterweight and the #8 All-Time Middleweight. Further, this writer rates him among the All-Time best “Pound-For-Pound” fighters in boxing history.
Ryan was elected to the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1958 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.
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Cincinnati (Oh) Enquirer. Jan 29 1895.
Curley, J. Jun 1926. "Tommy Ryan Greatest Fighter of All Time, Jess Willard Best Heavyweight, Says Jack Curley" (contained in The Ring, Jun 1926 pp 4 5 13).
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Lardner, R. 1972. The Legendary Champions. New York: American Heritage Press
Mathison, C. Sep 1925. "Tommy Ryan Ridicules Trickery of Kid McCoy" (contained in The Ring, Sep 1925 pp 24 25 31)
McArdle, T. Oct 1928. "Fitzsimmons, Hardest Hitter, Most Scientific and Strategic Puncher in Ring History" (contained in The Ring, Oct 1928 p 21).
McCallum, J. 1974. The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. Radnor, Pa: Chilton Book Company
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Odd, G. 1989. The Encyclopedia of Boxing. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited
Phelon, W. Feb 23 1910. "Billy Stift Had Hardest Punch Of Them All" (contained in the Denver (Co) Times. Feb 23 1910)
Roberts, J. and Skutt, A. 1999. The Boxing Register. Ithaca, NY: McBooks Press
Schutte, W. 1996 . Mysterious Billy Smith : The Dirtiest Fighter of All Time. Whitewater, Wi
Stillman, M. 1920. Great Fighters and Boxers. New York: Marshall Stillman Association
Van Court, D. 1926. The Making of Champions in California. Los Angeles: Premier Printing Company
Walsh, P. 1993. Men of Steel: The Lives and Times of Boxing's Middleweight Champions. London: Robson Books Ltd.
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